Ender's Game ★★

I loosely remember reading the novel this film is based on sometime around the time I was 12. Even then, in the sweet spot of the target demographic, I remember it being one of the most uninspired if not unoriginal pieces of science fiction I had ever welcomed into my adolescent brain, saved only by a final reveal that somehow found legitimate impact. I didn’t remember the story, but the reveal did resonate with me, as it has countless other readers, which is probably the reason why the book has been so successful for 30 years.

Watching this story in film, however, makes it readily apparent how little gravity the story has, and when condensed, how obviously telegraphed that big final act reveal was all along. This narrative has no stakes. When the film opens, the humans have already achieved victory over their alien attackers. There’s only one person in the entire film (Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff) who seems interested in continuing any form of aggression on the aliens, and there’s not a single other person who challenges or questions him for the entire arc of the film (at least, not until it’s too late) despite his irrationality. And our protagonist, Ender, for all of his over-sensitive lack of self-assurance, is actually Superman. There’s not a single challenge that he doesn’t effortlessly and completely overcome the instant it is presented it to him - sometimes before he’s even aware it’s a challenge in the first place. There are no stakes within Ender’s journey, because it’s clear that he’s going to overcome, and we as an audience are just witnesses to what we know is about to happen.

The story takes an un-athletic loner and develops his skills to become the leader of the best sports team in the fleet - that part I follow as far as progression goes - but then for some reason this tale of levelling-up takes a hard right turn to him being the commander of an entire armada of war vessels in a battle arena completely foreign to any previous experience. Of course, he succeeds here too with very little struggle and again, zero stakes. It’s a game, after all. And it’s pretty clear that one team isn’t even aware that they are playing it.

And that’s the real problem with the narrative - the stakes. The gravity of Ender's entire involvement only become present after the final act reveal. And it sort of still works cinematically, but it’s momentary and unpoetic, because all of the internal conflict and tension captured in the written word is relegated to about five minutes of screen time. In this moment, Butterfield finally shows us what he’s good at - emoting into the camera - but then it’s all over and we’re reminded of how bored we were five minutes ago and how bad our lead is at everything else, including just standing there with reasonable posture. And then we realize how stupidly thin the consequences are.

The writers thoroughly patronize everything about the adolescent experience, from bullying to camaraderie, from internal struggle to self-realization. These characters feel about as real as a cardboard cutout that pops out of a cereal box, the sort that have a mail-in rebate on the back for a crummy 50¢ Mattel toy. Ender’s universe is one where a kid with absolutely zero experience and no training is shot into space and taken seriously because his overseers can check some boxes beside a list of his personality traits. It’s the classic Chosen One archetype (The Matrix, Harry Potter) told in a condescending and uninspired way.

And then there’s the acting. I get that our hero is meant to be a bit of a dweeb, an underdog who has an amplified sensitivity underlined by the ability to lash out only when provoked. But it’s also a physical role, one that should describe a character who develops his physical abilities as much as his mental skills. Hell, the academy’s success track is completely determined by an overly important game of Quidditch-with-lasers, which emphasizes physicality as much as it does strategy. And while Asa Butterfield can emote effectively when it counts, he’s a pretty terrible actor all-around, and an annoying physical presence on screen. And no other actor is any better with their performances (even and especially Harrison Ford), which makes it nearly impossible to engage with what is happening. Actually, credit can be given to Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis, albeit with ride-along characters whose presence is merely narrative convenience.

The special effects are flawless, and though we’d pretty much expect that these days with anything set in a completely virtual universe, I'll give credit where it’s due - the animation and effect work is stellar. But unfortunately the music is far too overbearing, I assume in an attempt to amplify the epic-ness of a film that was built on rails.

Have I said enough to keep you from watching this banal adaptation? My advice: Read the book when you’re twelve, don't if you're not, and forget the film ever existed. It’s not adding anything.